Hallowed Japanese animation house, Studio Ghibli are making their first bold steps into the world of a slightly more long-form style of storytelling, with this children’s television series, streaming worldwide on Amazon Prime. Directed by Gorō Miyazaki, the son of acclaimed Ghibli director and co-founder of the animation studios, Hayao Miyazaki, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter (or Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya) is certainly in very capable hands, but does it match up to Studio Ghibli’s albeit very high standards?
The short answer to this is, not quite! Ghibli purists (such as this writer) will undoubtedly have problems right from the start, with the new computer-generated animation style being particularly jarring, when accustomed to the beautiful hand-drawn style demonstrated in their feature filmography. It is worth knowing as well that the Amazon Prime stream of it does not have the option for a Japanese audio track, and kudos to anyone who is able to get through the English dub, but it is for the most part unwatchable. Delving further into the internet does result in a Japanese subtitled version being found, but of course this behaviour is never condoned! So much of that quintessential “Ghibli magic” is lost in the poor translation, and whilst there are glimmers of hope, it never really feels like you are watching something from Studio Ghibli.
Taking pride in the ability of their films to charm both young and old, Studio Ghibli have somewhat failed in that regard when it comes to Ronja. The story, although picking up around halfway through the season, moves at a positively glacial pace. Entire episodes are spent dwelling on the same scenario, (think of “The Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, but less compelling), and the repetitive nature of the story beats becomes a little grating after a while. In a series which is so obviously aimed at children, this is a real issue, and it is unlikely that young minds will have the endurance or the willpower to keep watching. With a story that is so plodding and drawn out, and an animation style that will not sit well with Ghibli purists (assuming this is a largely adult audience), it is not entirely clear exactly who this series is for.
It is difficult to overlook the new computer generated animation style, and whilst the decision to adopt this aesthetic is undoubtedly a practical one – hand-drawing 26 25-minute long episodes would have taken a considerable amount of time – the fact that both the story and the animation fail to capture the heart and spirit of Ghibli, might leave you wondering why it couldn’t have been condensed into a 2-hour hand-drawn animated movie instead. This could have simultaneously rectified the need to take shortcuts with the animation and ironed out the pacing and story difficulties.
There are some bright spots however! The background animation is exquisite, and in particular, the art direction of the forest in which Ronja spends so much time, is beautifully animated. The character of Ronja herself is also charming and fun to spend time with, it is just a shame that the story doesn’t make the most of this.
Repetitive, slow, jarringly animated, and shockingly dubbed, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter sadly does fail to live up to the Ghibli expectations, and whilst there’s whimsical moments that will charm and delight, it ultimately struggles in knowing exactly who it is trying to please, and in the shortcuts taken it doesn’t really end up pleasing anybody. Worth a watch for the hardened Ghibli-devotees, but for newcomers, there’s a delightful filmography out there for you to discover which does a much better job of conveying the fantastical wonder and magic that makes Ghibli so beloved.